Personal loss not politics in 9/11 rites
NEW YORK—Is it time for a different kind of September 11?
Americans marked the 11th anniversary of the 2001 attacks on Tuesday with relatively low-key ceremonies that reflected a gradual dampening of passions around the fateful day.
Victims’ families and others were poised to gather and grieve at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, for the first time after the emotional turning point of last year’s 10th anniversary.
And in New York, there was a sense that it was a season of change and moving forward. It followed a last-minute breakthrough on a financial dispute that had halted progress on the Sept. 11 museum, and the commemoration itself was to be different.
Reading of names of 2,983 killed
The main event was to be the ritual reading at Ground Zero of the names of the 2,983 people killed both on 9/11 and in the precursor to those attacks, the 1993 car bombing of the World Trade Center.
Relatives of the dead were to take turns reading the names against a backdrop of mournful music.
They were to pause for moments of silence marking the time when each of the four planes hijacked by al-Qaeda turned into fireballs—two smashing into the Twin Towers, one into the Pentagon and one into a Pennsylvania field.
Another two moments of silence were to be observed at the times the two towers collapsed, accounting for the vast majority of 9/11’s victims.
For the first time, elected officials won’t speak at an occasion that has allowed them a solemn turn in the spotlight, but also has been lined with questions about separating the Sept. 11 that is about personal loss from the 9/11 that reverberates through public life.
To Charles G. Wolf, it’s a fitting transition.
“We’ve gone past that deep, collective public grief,” said Wolf, whose wife, Katherine, was killed at the World Trade Center. “And the fact that the politicians will not be involved, to me, makes it more intimate, for the families. … That’s the way that it can be now.”
US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama planned to attend the Pentagon ceremony and visit wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. US Vice President Joe Biden and US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar were to speak at the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, at the site where the hijacked United Airlines plane went down.
Officeholders from the mayor to presidents have been heard at the New York ceremony, reading texts ranging from parts of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address to poems by John Donne and Langston Hughes.
For former New York Gov. George Pataki, this year’s change ends a 10-year experience that was deeply personal, even as it reflected his political role. He was governor at the time of the attacks.
“As the names are read out, I just listen and have great memories of people who I knew very well who were on that list of names. It was very emotional,” Pataki reflected by phone last week. Among his friends who were killed was Neil Levin, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
But Pataki supported the decision not to have government figures speak.
“It’s time to take the next step, which is simply to continue to pay tribute,” Pataki said.
The National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum—led by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as its board chair—announced in July that this year’s ceremony would include only relatives reading victims’ names.
Free of politics
The point, memorial president Joe Daniels said, was “honoring the victims and their families in a way free of politics” in an election year.
Some victims’ relatives and commentators praised the decision. “It is time” to extricate Sept. 11 from politics, the Boston Globe wrote in an editorial.
But others said keeping politicians off the rostrum smacked of … politics.
The move came amid friction between the memorial foundation and the governors of New York and New Jersey over financing for the museum—friction that abruptly subsided on Monday, when Bloomberg and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an agreement that paves the way for finishing the $700-million project “as soon as practicable.”
Before the deal, Cuomo, a Democrat, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, had signaled their displeasure by calling on federal officials to give the memorial a financial and technical hand.
Some victims’ relatives saw the no-politicians anniversary ceremony as retaliation.
“Banning the governors of New York and New Jersey from speaking is the ultimate political decision,” said one relatives’ group, led by retired Deputy Fire Chief Jim Riches. His firefighter son and namesake was killed responding to the burning World Trade Center.
The White House said Obama had been briefed by “key national security principals on … preparedness and security posture” for the anniversary.
But in keeping with the lower key atmosphere this year, there would apparently be no official suspension of the bitter presidential campaign.
Former US President Bill Clinton would be campaigning for Obama and speaking out against Republican Mitt Romney at an event in Miami.
Blow to al-Qaeda
The passage of time appears to have cooled public attention to Sept. 11, particularly after the huge media coverage of the 10th anniversary, which many saw as a suitable moment for allowing commemorations to peak.
A skyscraper at One World Trade Center is near completion and is again the tallest building in New York, as were the Twin Towers before they came down.
The killing by American troops of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in May 2011 has helped draw a line under 9/11, as has the opening of the Ground Zero memorial, where last year’s ceremonies were held.
Bin Laden’s successor
Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a video on the eve of this year’s anniversary in which he confirmed that his deputy, Abu Yayha al-Libi, had been killed in a drone strike in Pakistan in June.
Libi was considered al-Qaeda’s global propaganda mastermind and his death dealt the biggest blow to the group since the killing of Bin Laden.
This year would also see the publishing on Tuesday of a book by a former US Navy Seal who was among the troops who shot dead Bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout.
The book describes in gory detail how the special forces killed the fugitive, then radioed back the news, saying it was “for God and country.” Reports from AP and AFP